10.3.1 Landscape and Settlement

As in other periods, there are limited landscape studies for the period such as has been undertaken in other areas (eg the northern Ochils: Given et al 2019), despite a good body of surviving remains and often good documentary evidence (Dalglish 2002; Bezant and Grant 2016). At the broadest scale there are the excellent overview surveys by the RCAHMS of the Cairngorms, Wester Ross and parts of Skye and Lochalsh, Cape Wrath, northwest Sutherland, Canna and Eigg (RCAHMS 1997; 1999a; 2001; 2003a; 2003b; 2009). John Hunter’s overview of the Small Isles (Canna, Eigg, Much and Rum) is also very strong on Post-Medieval settlement remains (Hunter 2016). The National Trust for Scotland has undertaken surveys on some of their properties, including Glencoe, Torridon, Balmacara and Inverewe, though most currently are unpublished (Case Study Archaeological Work by the NTS).

The North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NoSAS) has also undertaken large scale survey, notably at Loch Hourn (Wombell 2003; Case Study Loch Hourn Survey), Glen Feshie, Badenoch and Strathspey (Marshall 2013a; Case Study Glen Feshie Survey) and Strathconon, Ross-shire (Marshall 2011b). Historic Assynt has been investigating multi-period settlement in northwest Sutherland for years with some limited excavation (Cavers and Hudson 2011). The ACFA surveys of Raasay, Skye (Gazin-Schwartz 2018) provide an example of a detailed survey at an intermediate level – and also an indication of the resource required – while a detailed survey and excavation of a relatively small area is exemplified by the Lairg Project (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). Numerous small surveys have also been undertaken, including by the Scotlands Rural Past project on Moidart, Gairloch, Heights of Kinlochewe and near Strathpeffer (RCAHMS 2011).

The nature of rural settlement in areas and the remains visible today relate in many cases to the nature and history of agricultural organisation. In pre-improvement times in general the runrig system held sway whereby the arable land was shared out amongst multiple tenants (see Chapter 9.3). In some areas, the arable was organised into infield and outfield laid out into fields which might be separated by dykes. The whole of the township arable and remainder of the in-byeland was usually enclosed by a head-dyke. Tenants in more upland areas shared in common grazings which might be extensive. Shieling areas – a form of transhumance – were set aside for summer grazing.

Crofts or individual holdings had been in existence for centuries and might, for instance, be held by specialised tradesmen such as millers. Such crofts were not necessarily enclosed but should be distinguished from crofts which emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of the colonisation of waste or through the process of clearance and resettlement.

Houses were in general clustered together in townships or fermtouns, though there have been suggestions that settlement in earlier pre-clearance times may have been more dispersed (Dodgshon 1993; Dalglish 2002). In most areas we are also missing evidence for the Medieval period (see 9.3), so that issues of continuity or change cannot be assessed. Lelong (2003a) offered some thoughts on finding the Medieval and earlier Post-Medieval settlements in current townships, but this challenge has not been taken up. We should also be cautious of seeing one pattern over the whole Highland area. Moreover, it should also be borne in mind that settlements did not always comprise inhabitants of equal social status. Particular attention needs to be paid to the relationship between the larger farmers, the tacksmen, and their subtenants on the ground (see eg Taylor 2016b).

Aerial view of the deserted township at Easter Raitts, Kingussie, Badenoch and Strathspey. ©HES (James S Bone Collection)

Landscape re-organisation may be said to have begun with the development of policies, landscape gardens and designed landscapes surrounding the castles and mansions of the landowners. Some had antecedents in the 16th century, others incorporated 17th century changes, most were development further still in the era of improvement.

Although often dated to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the improvement movement was certainly evident in the Highlands during the first half of the 18th century and there were probably 17th century antecedents. At the same time, it may be said to have continued into the high farming era of the mid-19th century.

Extract from the 1757 map by Peter May ‘A Plan of that Part of the Annexed Estate of Lovat lying in the Parish of Kilmorack and County of Inverness‘ showing areas for Improvement and the formal garden layout of Castle Dunie. ©NLS

Landlords tended to be at the forefront of the earliest improvements which often commenced with the mains farm, which was expanded, usually by incorporating existing townships or farms, prior to being ditched, enclosed, and cleared of stones. The development of the mains was often associated with the development of the policies as a whole and the establishment of plantations. Plans could take decades to come to fruition, especially for the financially challenged.

Many Highland landlords, including Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, and the Highland Society were at the forefront of improving (Sprott 1995; Mitchison 1962). Improvement was in many ways a form of conspicuous investment: for landlords it was fashionable and helped to bolster social or political standing; it did not necessarily bring a significant financial return.

Some landlords engaged in wholesale reorganisation and took on the burden of creating improved farms. On other estates the responsibility lay with the tenants. Sometimes, the larger farmers took the initiative themselves: some tacksmen farmers, who often took the better land and left the worst for their subtenants, began to improve rather in the same way that landlords improved their mains or home farms (see, for instance, Taylor 2016b).

Even small tenants were involved in ‘improvement’ through the adoption of the potato, lazy bed cultivation, and more labour-intensive methods. Some areas saw considerable colonisation by ‘mealers’ or ‘crofters’ from the second half of the 18th century (Bangor-Jones 2014b; Mowat 1981). As settlements grew, some shieling areas in the more upland areas were brought into cultivation and in time some became permanently settled.

Colonisation by crofters and mealers/mailers along with upland areas coming into cultivation was driven by a number of factors but one of them was population increase which threatened the relationship between the existing population and the land and the way they worked it. One of the reasons for improvement was to find a better way of dealing with this land pressure. This is a separate issue to, but also overlaps with, tenants being cleared or relocated.

Farm consolidation and amalgamation took place over an extended period.  The abolition of runrig was a long-drawn out process taking place from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. It was achieved in part by the re-organisation into large arable farms, in part by the clearance of upland townships, and in part by the creation of crofts. Infield/outfield systems tended to disappear with agricultural improvement to be replaced with more regular crop rotations. Extension of the arable area into wetter soil conditions was given a boost by the availability of improved drainage techniques in the second quarter of the 19th century. Water management through the diversion of water courses and lowering of lochs (not always successfully) could alter the landscape in more fundamental ways (Symon 1959; Gibson 2007).

Aerial view of the crofting township, dykes, and remains of lazy-bed cultivation at Reiff, Ross and Cromarty. ©HES

In the arable lowlands change sometimes took place over a protracted timescale but in some places it occupied a very short space of time. The same could be said of the introduction of commercial sheep farming. In both instances there was disruption to existing tenancies, often taking the form of extensive clearance, a process which lasted from about the mid-18th to about the mid-19th centuries.

Some landlords saw advantage in retaining their cleared population to engage as fishermen or in kelp manufacture. Those cleared were resettled on the coast, sometimes, but not always on newly laid-out crofts or individual holdings. In some areas moorland settlements were established. Whether on crofts or in runrig holdings, the possessions were usually designed to be too small to provide year-round support. In due course, the collapse of kelp manufacture and the advent of the potato disease encouraged landlords to reorganise remaining runrig townships into crofts as an encouragement to improvement (eg near Gairloch: Shaw 1988; Caird 1994). Crofting townships established at a relatively late point in time – the 1840s and 1850s – may incorporate elements of the runrig system in a way in which townships established earlier – the 1810s and 1820s – do not (Bangor-Jones 2000).

Some crofts were later consolidated into farms. However, this was essentially put a stop to by the 1886 Crofting Act and subsequent legislation which brought security of tenure. The pattern of crofts in the Highlands at the time of the Crofting Act was modified by land settlement schemes, for example in Sutherland (Bangor-Jones 2020). All of these activities have left remains, with the upland cleared townships the most visible.

Despite the large number of surviving remains in the Highlands, there has been relatively little investigation (Dalglish 2002; Bezant and Grant 2016). Only two townships have been examined in any depth. Fairhurst’s excavation in the 1960s of some of the ruins of the cleared or pre-improvement settlement of Rosal in Strathnaver drew attention to the richness of such remains in the Highlands. He also considered the common grazings and outlying enclosures described in documentary sources (MHG11549; Fairhurst 1968). The other excavated (partially) Highland township was Easter Raitts, Badenoch (MHG4411; Lelong and Wood 2000; Case Study Easter Raitts Township) where work informed the layout and construction of Baile Gean township at the Highland Folk Museum; these excavations, however, have not been fully published. There are a large number of possible candidates for similar investigation on this scale, and ideally on the west coast. Some such as Slaggan, Wester Ross (MHG21342) retain upstanding remains.

The archaeological excavation at Easter Raitts investigating two longhouses as part of the Aberdeen University fieldschool in 1995. ©The Highland Council
Upstanding remains at Slaggan township, Ross and Cromarty. ©HES

Overall there have been significant advances. Many surveys have been undertaken building on the 1990s afforestation surveys of the RCAHMS, including work by Scotlands Rural Past, NoSAS, ACFA, NTS, commercial units and individual groups, with for the most part results published via the HER or Canmore. There is a slowly accumulating number of excavations, though on a limited scale, and none with the township focus as at Rosal and Easter Raitts. The constraints of funding have meant that excavation has usually focussed on an individual structure within a settlement with perhaps some attention paid to one or two other structures. The other caveat is that most of the sites surveyed or excavated date from the immediate pre-clearance or pre-Improvement period. Rural settlement sites of the 16th and 17th centuries have proved elusive.

The Highlands can at one level be regarded as a zone of survival: this reflects the history of settlement and land-use, with clearance followed by sheep farming and deer forest. However, when examined at the local level this view must be modified.  Firstly, the eastern lowlands of the Highlands – dominated by arable cultivation – are no different to other areas in Scotland where the pre-improvement settlements have, with few exceptions, been almost wholly erased. Secondly, many settlements in the Highlands proper have been ‘contaminated’ by post-clearance land-use, particularly shepherd’s houses, sheep enclosures and fanks. Settlements such as Learable in the strath of Kildonan (MHG11373; RCAHMS 1993a) which shows a split settlement with two distinct clusters, rigs and small enclosures, are not as common as is often thought (even Learable has a shepherd’s house).

Aerial view of Learable township, rig and other remains, Strath of Kildonan. ©HES

More attention also needs to be paid to the historical context for the settlements under study. For instance, illicit distillation in late 18th and early 19th century enabled marginal land to be settled. Did such settlement take particular physical forms? The distribution of mills in the 18th century (and preceding) requires an understanding of the institution of thirlage which could vary from estate to estate but which, until it was abolished, tended to limit the number of mills (see 10.4).

Physical evidence for land divisions, particularly those which might have played a part in the runrig system of land allocation, also need exploring. Head dykes can often be traced, usually of stone and turf or wholly of turf (particularly in wetter areas). Drystone dykes are the most prevalent, with many relating to post-enclosure divisions. Little attention has been paid to these in the past.

The establishment of crofting is generally associated with the clearance period.  However, as noted above, there could be a disjunction between clearance on the one hand and the later establishment of crofts in resettlement areas.  This calls for an archaeology of the formation of crofting, not only in elucidating its chronology but also its mark on settlement patterns. The Napier Commission and Brand (Deer Forest) Commission of 1895 testimonies provide a perspective from the tenants, which can be combined at a local level with estate details and landscape investigation.

Leaving to one side the majority of rural settlements, we should note the continuing use of crannogs, though not necessarily full time. Important dating has shown that crannogs continued to be built in the Post-Medieval period, for example Eaderloch Crannog, Loch Trieg in Lochaber (MHG4296; Case Study Eaderloch Crannog) dated by dendrochronology (Mills et al 2017) and radiocarbon techniques (Crone 2010). Other crannogs show signs of re-occupation of Iron Age sites, for example at Loch Kinellan, Strathpeffer in Easter Ross (MHG6285; Fraser 1917).

Occupation remains dating to the earlier Post-Medieval period have been discovered in caves by the Scotland’s First Settlers Project in Wester Ross (eg at Crowlin, Ard Clais Salacher, Allt na Criche, and Toscaig; Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009) and Rosemarkie Caves project in Easter Ross (S. Birch nd; pers comm), but further work on the nature of the occupation needs to be done.

Highland Travellers had seasonal camping sites and are recorded as using caves, with occasional archaeological remains of shelter walls (eg Cairds Cave on the Black Isle; MHG8855; Anderson-Whymark 2011). See 10.7 for further discussion of the difficulties of finding their evidence in the archaeological and documentary record.

Compared with many other areas in Scotland, there is relatively little urban presence in the Highlands; indeed only a handful of communities qualified to be included in the Scotlands Urban Past project. In 1700 there were only seven royal burghs (Wick, Dornoch, Tain, Fortrose, Dingwall, Inverness, Nairn), and a small number of burghs of barony where the landowner was entitled to hold markets for domestic goods. Mercat (market) crosses survive in several towns (Small 1900; Gifford 1992, 63, 65), though many have been moved over the years, and some are much weathered.

The Mercat Cross in Dingwall. ©HES

A great deal of work has been done in Inverness, but the archaeological remains and finds need to be brought together. The burgh surveys for Wick, Dornoch, Tain, Dingwall, Inverness and Nairn provide a wider perspective beyond individual buildings (Turner et al 1983; Simpson and Stevenson 1982b; Oram et al 2009; Simpson and Stevenson 1982a; Gourlay and Turner 1977; Dennison and Coleman 1999).  It is important that archaeological research on Highland burghs is placed within the context of developments within urban Scotland as a whole.

Villages planned and built by landowners for the most part relate to the improvements of the 18th and 19th century, in many cases designed to attract craftspeople and industry (Gifford 1992, 63); Planned settlements in the Highlands have been the subject of a PhD by Micky Gibbard at the University of Dundee. A number survive in the Highlands, many with good survival and documentary evidence. Some have been the focus of research (eg Balmacara Square, Wester Ross (MHG16855) by the NTS (Case Study Archaeological Work by the NTS), or community projects (eg Jamestown in Easter Ross; http://www.archhighland.org.uk/strathpeffer-area.asp accessed November 2020), and others have potential for further work. Other towns and villages have been investigated by community groups, with varying amounts of publication. A portal for this research would be useful.

Several well-preserved fishing villages survive in the Highlands (Gifford 1992, 640), including at Nairn and Avoch[AH8] . Some were planned settlements by the British Fisheries Society, such as Ullapool, Wester Ross and Pultneytown, Caithness (see 10.5), or landlords, such as at Port Henderson near Gairloch, Wester Ross (MHG21344). Port Henderson is a good example of a well-researched and surveyed community project combining documentary research and survey (Malone and MacInnes 2013). 

Aerial view of Avoch village showing the harbour in the foreground. ©HES

A large number of commemorative cairns survive throughout the Highlands, some in isolated locations, others in towns. These indicate not so much settlement, as concerns of people living in the Highlands. Ordnance Survey trig points/stations and benchmarks are also dotted throughout the landscape, part of national survey undertaken in the early 19th century and later resurveys.


Case Study: Archaeological Work by the NTS

Case Study: Loch Hourn Survey

Case Study: Glen Feshie Survey

Case Study: Easter Raitts Township

Case Study: Eaderloch Crannog


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